devotional poetry

Her story, his words

In an exclusive conversation, author Jerry Pinto speaks of his translations of women's Bhakti poems, the theme of longing for the beloved and the gendered nature of such devotional poetry.

Women have accomplished so much, but somehow, their inspiring stories don’t always get the attention they deserve. They could be ordinary women or extraordinary; their contributions are vital to any society. Yet, there haven’t been many memoirs or biographies that celebrate them. With this in mind, Mumbai-based writer Jerry Pinto makes it a point to bring out women’s voices through his works.

Pinto’s biography of Indian film actress and dancer Helen Richardson Khan, his novel Em and The Big Hoom narrating the story of a bipolar mother through the eyes of her teenage son, and his co-authored biography of Indian actress Leela Naidu are telling of his passion for women’s fascinating lives, their compelling works and remarkable achievements. In a conversation with Soulveda, the Sahitya Akademi awardee speaks of his translations of women’s Bhakti poems, the theme of longing for the beloved and the gendered nature of such devotional poetry.

You’re a writer who has written works of non-fiction based on the lives of notable women. What moves you to do this?

I don’t think I have a choice. I think sometimes the projects choose you instead of you choosing them. With Leela Naidu, for instance, she chose me. I had heard many bits and pieces about her interesting life from her friends and one day, she called me and asked if I would like to help her with writing her memoir. I have always felt that there are too few women’s memoirs around. If you tell a woman to write her memoir, her response is generally something like, ‘Who would be interested?’ You tell a man he should write a memoir and he whips out a manuscript!

What according to you is the connection between devotional poems and women?

I can only say that some of the most beautiful abhanga (devotional poems) have been written by women. And, when male classical poets and musicians want to yearn, want to long, they often sing or write in the female gender in order to best represent the separation from the beloved.

No poem is ever relevant or irrelevant on its own. It only becomes relevant or irrelevant when there is a reader.

You’ve worked with Hindustani musician Neela Bhagwat to translate more than fifty poems of various women Bhakti poets. How did this project come to be?

The project began in a gym we share in Mahim. That day the gym’s music system had failed and I was on the treadmill and so was Neela Bhagwat and she began to sing a Muktabai composition: Mungi udaali aakashi, teene gilile suryaanshi (An ant flew into the sky and swallowed the sun). I told Neela that I wanted to read it in translation. She said there wasn’t any and that there were many Marathi women Bhakti poets who had not been translated. I said, “You should choose fifty or sixty of these and we should translate them together.” I forget how many times I have made this offer and how many times people have never come back. But Neela Bhagwat was different; in a week or two, she was at my door with her choices.

What is the relevance of such poems today? The modern reader has not experienced or lived through an era of Bhakti.

No poem is ever relevant or irrelevant on its own. It only becomes relevant or irrelevant when there is a reader. You may pick up a book and start reading and think, ‘No, this one is not for me’ and set it down again. Another person may pick up the same book and find herself sucked into the book and unable to put it down until she has finished reading. It is the same book but in each case, it has become a completely different book.

It must be challenging to revive these women’s poetry in the 21st century. Could you please elaborate?

I would not dare to say that I am reviving these women’s works. They are part of national consciousness; their abhanga are still sung in hundreds of households every day. I have only translated some because they are so beautiful and because I wanted to, I needed to.

  • Jerry Pinto is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist and writer of poetry, prose, and fiction. His novel Em and The Big Hoom won the Windham-Campbell Award managed by the Beinecke Library at the Yale University; the Sahitya Akademi Award; the Hindu Lit for Life Award and the Crossword Award. His analysis of the figure of Helen in Helen: the life and times of Bollywood H-Bomb won him the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema. He is on the board of MelJol, an NGO that works in the child rights space; SPARROW, an archive for women; and The People's Free Reading Room & Library, one of his city's first public libraries. He is an advisor to the Jehangir Sabavala Foundation and teaches at the Social Communications Media Department of the Sophia Polytechnic.

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